handmade jewelry & metalsmithing

Design & Craft

Thimbles for sewing and thimbles for banjo 


I make two kinds of thimbles, uniquely designed for two very important pastimes- sewing and banjo playing. It’s fun when your hobbies can overlap, and a new product is invented! I’ll show you some beginner’s metalsmithing techniques and you can see how I make these. The jewelry techniques for this could be used to make an adjustable ring or use your imagination and you could use these methods to make a tool for something you enjoy.

Solid argentium sterling silver sheet is sawn with a jeweler’s saw. Beginner tips: match your sawblade to the gauge of the sheet: 24gauge is best cut with a 6/0 blade. A little wax on the blade never hurts. I’ve used a tube of beeswax or coconut oil based lip balm, nothing really specific to the task is necessary!


    Tighten your saw blade with enough tension to hear a bright sounding tone when you gently strum it. If it sounds flat increase the tension. Wear your goggles in case you break a blade. Everyone knows sharp objects and lemon juice head straight for the eyes!


    Ready to saw? Hold it straight up and perpendicular to your metal by using a jeweler’s benchpin. Saw straight up and down, slowly and keeping aware that you are only removing metal on the downstroke. With practice, you will be able to use the most delicate blades to create  graceful intricacy in your work. Save frustration by learning with the heaviest blades.


    The next part is truly fun- hammering! I start with a jeweler’s ball peen hammer and an indentation in a tree stump to start sinking the metal. If I want a more dramatic bowl, I will need to anneal the metal. I will hammer it with a rawhide mallet on a small dapping punch held in a vise to refine the form.


    Next, I will use files and sandpaper to shape the edges so they will be smooth and rounded. Remember when filing that you only remove metal on the push, it’s not a back and forth process like the sandpaper.

    Metal stamps mark the metal type and copyright information. A custom monogram could be added at this point.


    For now, I will leave these sanded and flat, so that they could be personalized for a custom order. After sanding and stamping, shaping is done on the ring mandrel with a rawhide mallet. Polishing is done with the flex shaft drill using tripoli, white diamond and rouge on felt buffing wheels. As a final touch, these are tumbled with steel shot and burnishing compound for luster and to harden the metal. 

    I hope you’ve got an idea of some new things you can try! 

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    Custom Handmade Banjo Fingerpicks

    I got a banjo for my birthday. The happiest most fun instrument there is. I thought the ukulele was the coolest, but since a banjo requires jewelry-it wins!
    How long did it take me to start making my own banjo picks? Not long. Almost instantly. I am allergic to nickel, and I have the tiniest fingers ever, so it was a mix of necessity and artistic opportunity, which often combine to mean the same thing.
    How many mock-ups before I settled on the best? Countless! I made banjo picks different ways in silver, copper, aluminum, paper and foil for 2 months until I found my sweet spot.
    Finally, I nailed a design that is completely original and fits like it isn’t there at all. The bonus is that sterling silver is not only beautiful, but sounds like heaven. I was playing on a pair of National’s that I inherited from my Dad. Not only were they too big and uncomfortable on my skin due to the nickel, the sound of the nickel on the strings is awful and scratchy. You don’t really notice it until you’ve heard the sound of the silver. But, once you do there’s absolutely no going back.

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    Here’s a view if the process, from copper mock-up to the finished product. You can purchase a pair of these from my Etsy shop. You can even add a custom design and inscription.
    Here’s a view of the process in making the design, from copper mock-up to finished product.

    First, it’s just copper sheet.

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    Then, I apply masking tape so that I can draw my design.

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    I trace my design from a paper mock-up.

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    I saw it from the sheet with a jeweler’s saw.

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    Banjo fingerpicks come in pairs, just like making earrings. They have to match.

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    Next, I file away the rough edges.

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    Then, I draw the star.

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    I drill a hole for the saw blade, then carefully excise the design in the metal. I add the stamps for sterling silver, my maker’s mark and copyrights.

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    I tap the ring shanks around the mandrel.

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    They are now beginning to take shape, but still require a lot of filing, sanding and polishing.

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    Here’s how they line up to an old National.

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    Here’s how they would fit if your fingers are batteries.

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    Now here are some various glamour shots because they are so beautiful.

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    New Year of Handmade Adventures

    It’s a New year and a time when lots of art lovers are looking for a new outlet. Well, I have some advice: make whatever you want, whenever you can.
    If you feel inspired to try your hand at creating something in metal, here are some excellent books to guide you.
    The Complete Metalsmith by Tim McCreight
    Gemstone Settings by Anastasia Young
    The Complete Book of Jewelry Making by Carles Codina
    The Design and Creation of Jewelry by Robert Von Neumann
    Indian Jewelry Making by Oscar T. Branson
    If you can only get one: The Complete Metalsmith
    But if you can get two, get that and Indian Jewelry.

    This year, keep an eye out for beautiful craftsmanship and make some of your own! Here are some shots of the studios, craftsfolk and craftwork at Colonial Williamsburg for further inspiration.

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    Adventures in Torch-Fired Enameling

    It’s the start of a good day- going to explore and experiment with the contents of this box!

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    After ten years of metalsmithing, I’ve finally become curious about trying my luck with enameling. I’m looking forward to seeing shiny colors and experimenting with torch-firing. I’ve ordered sifters, trivets and colors. No kiln though- I want to be up close for the changing colors and molten glass!

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    I’m excited-blue, yellow, black and white opaque enamel to play with!
    But first, I will make copper earrings to hold the enamel.

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    I love the potential of the copper to be shiny pink, black, purple and red-and the way that plays against the colors of the enamel. So much fun!


    Creating a More Natural, Chemical-Free Jewelry Studio

    Jewelry Bench

    Do you ever wonder if you really need something toxic-strength to do a simple job? As I moved my studio recently, I had to neutralize my pickling acid-creating a bubbling blue sludge volcano, mop up all traces of flux with a wearing a mask and gloves, and try not to chemically dissolve the carpet out of my new car, as I did last time I moved my studio.
    So it got me thinking about switching to ingredients that are a little less harsh. My husband and I gave green cleaners a try for our home, as we hate smelling windex/pine sol/bleach. Yuck. So we gave vinegar, baking soda and borax a try. Wow. They have not let us down, and the savings are unbelievable. We even switched to pure glycerin soap, and now we don’t have to clean up soap scum from those other soaps.
    But, it’s metal…it needs a really hardcore toxic action to do the job, right? Flux has got to stand up to torches that could reach 1500° to melt hard solder, and the pickling acid needs to be able to eat up the flux glass that forms on the metal. But I’m game, so I do a little research like a good librarian should, and here is how I work now:

    Borax Flux

    1. Flux: In blacksmithing, we used 20 Mule Team Borax to forge weld steel. An awesomely fun endeavor-as it bubbles and sprays hot molten stuff out when you smash it with your hammer. Waaaaayyy out! I used to love doing demos and watching people jump back! But anyway, British jewelers, and a lot here, use a cone of Borax that they grind into a dish (looks like a mortar and pestle) with a little water. The Borax in the box maybe isn’t so finely ground, so I pulverized it a little with the back of a spoon, and put it into a little jar with water. Accustomed to using handy flux, I will tell you the main differences: you will have to shake it , stir it and apply it fairly quickly-the borax and the water separate. If you had thrown away your solder pick because your flux stuck like glue-go get one-you’ll need it. It can bubble and jostle all your pieces around until you get a feel for the mixture. It also helps to wait a little for it to dry, which is the opposite of working with handy flux. Also different, is that you can get it all over your piece to prevent oxidation, then still control your solder flow with the torch and solder pick. If you don’t have one, I have always used the needle tool from my clay-working tools. The wood-handled ones for soldering metal where always to bulky and bendy in my experience. Advantages of Borax: easily available from the laundry aisle of your supermarket for around $5 a box. That means borax is about $1 per pound, handy flux is about $11 per pound. Commercial fluxes contain fluorides, potassium and hydroxide. You don’t want to breathe their fumes or let them touch your skin. Borax is naturally derived sodium tetraborate-the only dangers it warns you of is not to eat it or put it in your eyes. You still don’t want to breathe the soldering fumes (solder, carbon monoxide), but think of it this way–you can wash your clothes in it. It’s not scary.

    Pickling Acid

    2. Pickling Acid: There’s a lot of ways to pickle-sulfuric acid, sodium bisulfate, sparex, pool chemicals. And then you are responsible for neutralizing and ethically disposing of your sludge. Not to mention that you are going to be breathing some amount of it, as a big puff of steam escapes each time you raise the lid. My first alternative solution was to try Citric Acid. This can also be found at your supermarket (well, maybe your more country-ish supermarket. Food City, not Kroger) in the canning and pickling section. Also at sporting goods/outdoorsman stores with the sausage-making/meat preserving items. I used a mixture of 2 cups water (16oz) and added 3 oz. citric acid. Always add acid to water. They also say you can use 1 cup white vinegar with 1 tsp-1 tbsp of salt. But guess what-it will stink like a pot of simmering vinegar all the time. I’ve found that the citric acid has excellent results, comparable to chemicals, and is still going strong now that it’s a month old. Just add water as the water level lowers. There’s still a lot of granules floating around the bottom, but nothing funky is growing and it has no smell. It costs about $5 for 5oz. Which will make a couple batches. I worked out the cost difference to be about $2 to make a quart with either chemical or natural pickle. But the citric acid won’t eat through your clothes. It’s citric acid, as in sour candy, lemons-stuff you know. The chemical pickles have a long list of warnings-each one ending with “seek medical attention.”

    Hand Torches

    3. Torches: There are a lot of ways to spend a lot of money to get a simple flame. My first torch was my most expensive-an acetylene cylinder. It cost about $90-filled, I got $40 back when I turned in the empty cylinder 6 years later. The Smith hoses, regulator, handset and assortment of tips were well over $300. Of course I loved it-worth every penny. The best set up for working a range of sizes. But somehow I got over having to be responsible for that cylinder of gas-driving it in my car when I move, carrying that behemoth up flights of stairs, knowing that it could be potentially disastrous in a house fire. I was kind of relieved when it ran out, and I decided to explore other options. So, what’s actually legal to have in your home? A disposable propane cylinder, not a grilling size tank. They can even be recycled http://www.bernzomatic.com/green-key/green-key-english.aspx I use the Bernzomatic TS 4000T Trigger Start hand torch, which is about $35 at your hardware store. The propane fuel cylinders are about $2, and last me several months using them pretty heavily. You can do anything with this flame, and it is much cleaner than the acetylene-no black on your piece and it’s a nice heat. It was priceless when I had concrete floors, space, and a ventilation hood. But in a smaller area with windows and fans, it set off my carbon monoxide detector after soldering. So use it outside if you don’t have a big, well ventilated setup. I purchased the Bernzomatic Butane Micro Torch Kit at a hardware store for $25, that is filled with butane. At about $4 for 5.5 oz, I have refilled it twice and haven’t run out yet. It’s a lovely little flame to work with. However, I prefer the propane hand torch -the large neutral flame is perfect for enveloping your piece to prevent firescale. The butane flame is burning bright blue and pointy (oxidizing)-so you’ll want to coat your piece with flux, or have a terrible cleanup ahead of you. I do appreciate it’s adjustable flame, otherwise it really might be useless in soldering with thaIt has its limits, you will not be doing large pieces with this flame, and if you try, the tip will melt at extended periods of high heat. But it’s very convenient for findings, which was risky business with the large non-adjustable flame of the propane torch. I like having them both.

    Dremel Stylus

    4. Rotary Tool: My Grobet FlexShaft tool is indispensable. I need it to drill, to grind, to sand and polish. But when you have an old house with no nearby grounded plugs- you don’t want to blow a fuse, or fry your over $200 investment. So , I decided to try the Dremel Stylus-again, from a hardware store around $70. I picked up additional collets (quick change assorted pack-$7) so I could use my jeweler’s drill bits and flex shaft bits. And it works like a dream. It sits on a charging station, so it is cordless, but always ready to go. And to me, the greatest advantage is that it comes with instructions for which speed settings to use for which bits and materials-drilling metal, buffing with a felt wheel, grinding. The speeds correspond to the rpm, which allow you to use precisely the right speed for your bit. My polishing results are more reliable now that I’m at a steady speed rather than using a foot pedal. But be careful, if something catches, the off button is near the bit (bad design choice). It’s much more comfortable to use, being cordless and lightweight is a nice bonus. I hate that Dremel is made in China though-Grobet and Foredom FlexShafts are made in the US. But this is an affordable, capable, compact alternative to a flexshaft.

    Bench and Anvil

    5. Work Area: My jeweler’s bench is surrounded on 3 sides by open windows. A fan gives a nice cross breeze, and the natural light is so much better for my eyes. Although, I do have to sometimes draw the blinds to make it dim enough to watch my flame. I always wear a 3M P100 respirator (vapors and particulate) when I’m soldering or using chemicals. And a regular dust mask when I’m sanding, sawing or polishing.

    Window View

    6. Preventing Eyestrain: I always wear safety glasses, but how do I keep my eyes strong when I spend hours squinting at tiny objects? You must periodically take breaks to focus on something far away. Now I can look out the window at my vegetable patch, and combine that with the sounds of the birds and the fresh air, and I really don’t mind that it is hot…so verrrry hot in Tennessee! I hope this gave you some inspiration about how you can be more natural in your workshop. It’s safer and more economic, and generally we can be more creative when we are more minimalist in our processes. Pare your studio down to the basics that you understand, and you can be more comfortable and intuitive about what’s happening in there.


    Handwork

    This morning I read a nice essay by Bruce Metcalf on the eternal debate of art vs. craft. I'll boil it down for you; his stance is agreeing with Arthur Danto that art is "embodied meaning" and the object is limitless, while craft implies some amount of handwork. He likes to keep the designations separate, while others like to blur the lines. For myself, I appreciate the separate realms, because when I studied "art" we had to talk about what makes something art ad nauseum, and everything we made we junked in the trash after crits. When I studied craft, we skipped the banter, learned how to use tools and the focus was on creating objects and learning techniques. Our crits were so much less an exercise in selling your idea, and we actually learned as well as gained inspiration from discussing the pieces together. There's so much more to be learned from a well-crafted object, than "art projects" that are basically an exercise in visual communication. When you "get" the meaning of a work of art, it's nice to continue to be awed by the skill of the maker, and the nature of the medium, and the way the piece interacts with its environment. I would definitely agree that art and craft are separate realms, craft is like a thick rope made up of a lot of different strands, and art is like a single thread with a lot of weight on it.

    I've been having a bit of spring fever since we've had snow dumped on us for more than a week, so I've been working on themes of flowers and colored stones. If my gem order doesn't arrive soon with more colors, I'm going to start mining for my own in the mountains! I've never been a fan of gems, but it's creeping up on me. Maybe it's the long-term exposure to Leslie Hall. In the meantime, I've made these, which take a different route to floral representation. I've made the sculptural flowers pictured below, so with these I represent the outline of a floral motif with saw-work.

    I love the simplicity of these little blossoms. Today I'm going to get started on some larger floral forms for pendants. I used to try to avoid floral motifs in jewelry, as it's done so often, but there are endless approaches to it. And they go so nicely with birds, which I've been into lately.

    These turned out very simple and charming I think. They have a hammered texture and a very wiggly delicate line, so they look very old and comforting to me. They make me think of a motif from hand-stitching on a quilt, with their wandering tendrils- a good way to interpret flowers in the winter.